SINGAPORE -- The U.S. is pushing to raise its profile as a source of coronavirus vaccines for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, countering similar Chinese moves and courting a 10-member bloc that is vital to its Indo-Pacific strategy.
The U.S. and China were set to come face to face in the online East Asia Summit foreign ministers meeting Wednesday evening, with the two superpowers expected to lay out their positions on pressing issues including the COVID-19 recovery. Both sides telegraphed their arguments.
In a statement released as the meeting was about to get underway, the U.S. emphasized that it "has provided more than 23 million vaccine doses and over $158 million in emergency health and humanitarian assistance to ASEAN members to fight COVID-19."
On Monday, ahead of the ministerial summit as well as Wednesday's ASEAN-U.S. foreign ministers meeting, a State Department official told reporters that "the U.S. is a trustworthy partner" in the pandemic battle. The official added that the U.S. plans to provide funding to ASEAN's COVID-19 Response Fund, established by the bloc and partners.
To be precise, the White House says the U.S. had donated 23,797,000 doses to seven ASEAN members as of Tuesday, including 8 million to Indonesia and 5 million to Vietnam. "We have provided these vaccine doses free of charge and with no political or economic strings attached," the State Department official said.
China has also been highlighting its commitment to helping ASEAN with inoculations.
In an ASEAN-China meeting on Tuesday, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing was willing to "fully support ASEAN countries in building a regional vaccine production and distribution center and fully promote the implementation of China-ASEAN public health cooperation initiatives."
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China has provided over 190 million coronavirus vaccine doses to ASEAN members -- homegrown shots made by companies like Sinovac and Sinopharm.
Southeast Asian countries need all the shots they can get. Six of the 10 ASEAN nations had less than 10% of their populations fully vaccinated as of the latest available figures on the Our World in Data website.
According to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, ASEAN countries had ordered a combined 238 million doses of Chinese vaccines as of July 23 -- approximately 30% of their total known deals of 773 million doses. Separately, China has donated about 7 million doses to ASEAN members including Laos and the Philippines.
But as the more contagious delta variant rages and the region's toll mounts -- an average of 2,500 died a day in the week through Sunday, accounting for over a quarter of global confirmed deaths -- some ASEAN members appear to be leaning toward other options.
Thai health authorities last month decided to allow people who received Sinovac shots to take AstraZeneca as a second dose. And Malaysia's Health Ministry said the country would stop administering Sinovac vaccines once its supplies end, according to local reports, as it has a sufficient amount of alternatives such as Pfizer-BioNTech.
Malaysian authorities reportedly denied efficacy concerns as the reason for the decision. But doubts have dogged Chinese vaccines. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which administered Sinopharm vaccines to their populations, began offering Pfizer boosters after new waves of infections.
Chinese officials insist their vaccines are effective. "All sides should adhere to a science-led response and reject politicization or stigmatization," a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said this week.
Wang also said in Tuesday's ASEAN-China meeting that he "opposes the politicization of scientific issues."
The U.S. and China traded barbs over regional security issues as well, ahead of the East Asia Summit ministerial talks. Besides the two rivals and the 10 ASEAN states, EAS participants include Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and South Korea.
The State Department official told reporters on Monday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken would bring up Beijing's "coercion" in the South China Sea as well as human rights violations in China.
China's Wang on Tuesday criticized external countries' interventions in South China Sea issues, noting that those unnamed countries have sent a large number of warships and planes. "The South China Sea is not and should not become an arena for great powers," he said.
Tensions are high in the Indo-Pacific region. U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is not alone in looking to check Beijing's maritime expansion: The U.K. has also sent its HMS Queen Elizabeth warship to Asia.
Meanwhile, ASEAN foreign ministers agreed in Monday's meeting to grant Britain "dialogue partner" status, according to a joint communique released on Wednesday. The status is important for partner countries as it offers them access to high-level ASEAN meetings, and acts as a precursor to potential trade agreements with the 10-nation grouping.
The U.K. enjoyed the status under the European Union, but lost it after Brexit. It had applied to become a partner in June last year as it sought to shift its diplomatic and trade focus more toward Asia.
ASEAN had a moratorium on new dialogue partnerships, with the last admissions being India, China and Russia in 1996. But the foreign ministers also agreed to "commence a comprehensive review of the moratorium" with the aim of enhancing the ASEAN Community and advancing "ASEAN's relations with external parties," they said in their statement.
Additional reporting by Shotaro Tani.